He surprised everyone as if he came from another planet. The best player in the English Premier League. The top scorer in the world’s strongest league in his return season to England. The top scorer in all five major leagues, surpassing the likes of Messi and Ronaldo.
This is how Egypt’s Mohamed Salah awed football fans in Britain and the world. He became more than just a great footballer, entertaining fans, but an example, sending indirect positive messages to all of his followers.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was not exaggerating when it described Mo, as he is fondly called by his avid Liverpool fans, as “a symbol of soft power in Egypt.” He has joined the ranks of Egyptian soft power icons, such as singer Umm Kulthum, writer Naguib Mahfouz, actor Omar al-Sharif and scientist Ahmed Zewail.
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There is no doubt that Mohamed Salah’s actions on the football field, which have attracted millions of fans without saying a single word, are more powerful than millions of lectures, seminars, and, of course, ideological slogans.
The term “soft power” first appeared in a 1990 book, Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, by American Joseph Nye. He wrote about strengthening American interests all over the globe through what he called “soft power”, and, of course, hard or military power.
An influential weapon
Soft power, he explained, is a means for success in the world of international politics. It is an influential weapon that achieves goals through attractiveness and persuasion, instead of coercion or bribes.
Nye concluded that the source of soft power in any country is its culture if this country has the minimum level of attractiveness and if it faithfully applies its policies on its internal and foreign fronts. This is how soft power turned into a major and main concept in political and social sciences.
The hard part lies in how to softly and indirectly influence others. Nye said that people have to be influenced and convinced through the ability to attract them, which will ultimately make them listen.
This is how sport is no longer just a game. Football no longer entertains millions of people around the world and ends when the match concludes. It has, for a while, been transformed into an important geo-political factor and main source of strength for nations.
Pascal Boniface, founder of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said football differs from traditional power. “Everyone fears the US politically and economically, but no one fears it in football where it does not have control.” Can anyone doubt this truth?
During an interview with CBS in 2010, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that there are moments when music is more capable than speeches in relaying American values, regardless of how powerful this speech may be.
Indeed, soft power’s positive influence can take the shape of more than just an image. It can be a Chinese free trade market in Dubai, a Japanese restaurant in Riyadh, a Saudi film screened in New York, a painting by an Iraqi artist displayed in Paris, or an Egyptian football player, like Mo Salah, reaching new heights in the English Premier League.
These tools are more powerful than the millions of dollars worth of public relations campaigns. More important is how they should be used in uprooting extremism, which definitely cannot be achieved through security confrontations alone. Soft power, such as sports, culture and art, should be used as an effective weapon against extremist organizations.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Salman Aldosary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He tweets @SalmanAldosary.